Today is celebrated as “BIO(nicle) Day” by the international LEGO fan community, derived from the date 8/10. Time to turn to one of the creative minds behind the theme series: Christian Faber. During my research for the article on the 20th anniversary of Bionicle, I got the opportunity to learn all about his time as creative director and co-owner of the advertising agency Advance, which has been working with LEGO since 1976, in a two-and-a-half-hour video interview.
This article is also available in German.
From Aquazone to Bionicle to Star Wars, Christian Faber was involved in many of LEGO’s product lines, and in some places his work is still recognizable today. Since not all of the interesting topics of our conversation made it into the article about Bionicle, we don’t want to withhold those from you and publish the rest of the interview in this separate article. Have fun reading!
Hi Christian! You are known as the “creative mastermind” behind Bionicle, one of the most successful themes in the history of LEGO. But let’s take a step back and start some years earlier. You started working for the advertising agency Advance back in 1986. Did you join this company with the goal to cooperate with LEGO?
It was really coincidental, actually. I’ve been drawing and making ideas and visual stuff all my life, I just didn’t know that I could use it for working. But I had heard about advertising and I thought: “Ok, maybe I can get in there and just draw”. So I went around the agencies in Copenhagen and everybody said that I needed a fitting education to get a job. The last company I went to was Advance and they said: “We have a special client, we need a lot of drawings, so come in here.”
I started right at the bottom, with almost no payment and then worked my way up to becoming a co-owner of the agency. We had different clients over the years but mostly LEGO. I worked there for 28 years and I did at least two launches of new products per year for LEGO. So it’s quite a big number of different themes that I was involved in. Just to mention the biggest ones: Aquazone, which was my first line as creative director for the entire theme, LEGO Technic, all kinds of space themes through the years, Star Wars, Slizer, RoboRiders and then Bionicle. The last three themes were still based in the Technic department, which is why I was the lead artist. It’s really been an amazing journey!
It must have been very special to be part of all these product lines, especially ones like LEGO Star Wars.
That Star Wars thing we did came totally out of the blue. We’ve been talking to LEGO for years to encourage them to start working with franchises, but they always said “No, we don’t do that at all”. And then one day in 1997, I got a call from Billund and they asked if I was busy the next week. I had time, so we went on a trip to California, to the Skywalker Ranch, for the first meeting with people from Lucasfilm. I was there as representative of Advance and beside me there was one guy from LEGO US and another guy from LEGO Billund. So we were sitting outside the big meeting room, waiting for the contract to be faxed from Billund. It was like this pile of paper (shows a large span with thumb and index finger) and we all had to sign it. I was signing like hundreds of pages, I didn’t even have time to read it. Afterwards, we went into the meeting room and got briefed on the beginning cooperation. We even got to see a first glimpse of Star Wars Episode I! It was quite amazing! And that’s just one of all the crazy stuff that happened. It’s been a LEGO adventure in real life! (laughs)
According to their website, Advance is still working for LEGO and was involved in releases of big themes from the current portfolio. The cooperation of LEGO and Advance sounds like a huge success story.
Definitely! I was lead director for LEGO Friends, too, for example. And Mindstorms and Ferrari, BMW, I also did LEGO Racers. And I worked on the LEGOLAND themeparks, I designed some of the logos that are still used today. We were constantly challenging the LEGO staff and the briefing we got. We didn’t do the ordinary. When they gave us a task, we put in all our knowledge and gave them back something else. And that’s why I think the agency has been working for LEGO for more than 40 years now. It’s a crazy success story!
Let’s take one step back: Do you remember the first LEGO theme you actually worked on?
The first campaign I did was the original LEGO Pirates in 1989 which had this big pirate ship (Editor’s note: 6285 Black Seas Barracuda) that just has been relaunched last year (Editor’s note: 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay). We did the original campaign that included a TV commercial and all the shop material and posters and stuff. Some years later, Aquazone was my first theme as creative director and I got the chance to do a project in my favourite environment: underwater worlds.
As you mention Aquazone: My colleague Jens is a huge Aquazone fan who also wrote a stunning article about this topic. He would like to know if you were also involved in the underwater themes following Aquazone, like Hydronauts/Stingrays or Aquaraiders, or if the artwork there was just “recycled” from your original material?
I think that was done by LEGO. At Advance, we often got themes which should break new ground and when you had a steady theme that just had to be continued, it went to an in-house design department in Billund. There was this joke that “In-House” is the biggest agency in Denmark, because they do all the stuff for LEGO. (smirks)
When you did all the artwork for a new toy-line, did you also design the prints for the LEGO parts?
Sometimes we actually did that and supported the people at LEGO. For example, we designed the prints for the Slizer helmets. But in general, there is an entire department in Billund just doing the decorations. The graphic department was really small in the beginning, but they started to take over more and more of these tasks and also developed their own style of doing things.
Are there any special inspirations you used when thinking up the world for a new theme?
I had a lot of references and pictures I found. Not on the web at that time, but in books like this. (shows his editions of “By Nature’s Design” from 1993, written by Pat Murphy) This book has been a good inspiration. It was also used in Bionicle for a lot of things because micro and macro worlds are always connected and if you use shapes across both of them, you get this kind of balance with similar patterns and so on. I’m so nerdy regarding these topics!
Designers and people in the background haven’t been very famous or even known to LEGO fans for a long time. The first time I heard your name was in a Netflix documentation called “The Toys That Made Us”.
Oh yes, that’s another cool story. I dind’t know that this special was beeing made. So people were calling me and said: “Do you know that you are in a Netflix series?”, and I just said “What!?”. The guy who is shown a lot in this documentation, David Robertson, he wrote a book called “Brick by Brick”, for which I was interviewed. And it was the first time I asked LEGO if I could tell the real story about my illness and Bionicle, because I’ve never told it to anyone before.
I got the diagnosis for my brain tumor in the same month I started working at Advance in 1986. The reason it was discovered was that it was squeezing my visual cortex so I started to see a little dot in the middle of my eyesight. I got medicine from then on and I had to eat these capsules which ‘coincidentally’ looked like these. (shows a can from the first Bionicle series, released in 2001) Every night I had to eat one of those and the next morning I always felt very sick. But when Bionicle came and we needed a story engine behind it, I was thinking about my own situation: Putting capsules of medicine into my body to try to find the right spot and cure the illness. This led to the initial idea to have this robot underneath the big island and then the medicine arrives on the beach. But the medicine, the Toa, were simply not knowing what they would have to do and first had to find out that they were actually heroes in a big story. And this simple story provided possibilities year by year. It’s crazy looking back and telling this all now, because in the beginning, we thought that we might be able to fill three years of story. In the end, we exceeded this a lot.
Taking a look at all the boxes, posters and video material, Bionicle seemed to be a great leap forward regarding the design of the entire marketing material.
That’s right, everything was done using computer generated renderings and it was the first time you had a 3D rendering as a picture on the box. Before Bionicle, the product pictures had always been photos and it was not allowed to use a rendering. But we said, we need to bring this characters to life and the front of the box is the most important way of connecting to the customers. There were a lot of discussions whether we would be allowed to break this rule, if the kids could be tricked by a computer generated box design.
It was not only a discussion inside the company, a lot of stuff that could create a false impression is not allowed when you’re doing toys. There’s also a funny Aquazone story related to this topic: We did a shooting in London, and all submarines had to be held by a hand when “swimming” through the setting, because it must not create the impression that they could fly on their own. So we had a child’s hand moving the submarines through the underwater world in the commercial. But in reality, there was no child. We used artificial hands for the shootings. And the most crazy thing is: I had to bring the suitcase with the arificial hands inside as my luggage from Denmark to London. So imagine having four children’s hands that were really lifelike inside your bag when going through the security scanner! (laughs)
Let’s take a look at your most successful contribution to the LEGO portfolio: Bionicle. With LEGO designing the models and the new elements while you and your colleagues developed the story and designed all the artwork of the islands and places there were a lot of different people involved in this project. Did you have a special distribution of tasks or a certain workflow?
In the beginning we didn’t know how it would evolve. We worked together with a LEGO Technic team in the first place coming from Slizer and RoboRiders. With more and more character-based themes, they were starting to form a special team for the model building. At Bionicle there was a core group of model builders, maybe four or five people. They would do suggestions and at the same time we worked on the direction of the story. We met before the start of a new line and discuss the direction in which we were going. Then we came together in the middle to exchanged our ideas. Afterwards we tried to fit their development of the models into the storyline. Through the years this became more and more of a routine. At a certain point we had a story team consisting of Greg Farshtey as the author of the Bionicle comics, me from the agency and a model designer from LEGO, often Christoffer Raundahl. The process developed through the years and the story team used to prepare the main storyline for the next year. We had a lot of discussions, suggestions and good fights.
Do you have a favourite storyline within Bionicle?
The underwater era in 2007 was like a mixture of Aquazone and Bionicle, for me it was the perfect combination! My biggest inspiration is the sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. I followed his TV shows in the 70’s in Denmark and they were the reason why I started drawing. And when Star Wars came out, I was like: “It can’t compete with the sea anyway!”
Was there a certain point where you started to realize the big success and impact of Bionicle?
I think the first time that we had the feeling that something was different was on a trip to New York for the Mata Nui Online Game. The meeting rooms and the people we met were suddenly in a different scale. The US market was really hyped on Bionicle and the consumers were grabbing the sets like gold. The big success there was shaping everyone’s confidence. The interaction with the fans also felt very different right from the beginning. We had none of today’s possibilities to market stuff, the CD-ROM inside the boxes, the online game, everything we did was high-tech at that time.
Did you read through the things fans wrote in Bionicle forums like BZPower to collect some of their wishes for the development of the story?
Talking to the fans and seeing their reaction to what we did gave a lot of inspiration for what the next thing could be and what aspects we should push more. Greg’s (Editor’s note: Greg Farshtey was the author of nearly all Bionicle books and comics) interaction with the fans on the story side was also amazing. We also did a lot of testing with children from the target group, “Bionicle Boys” as we called them, to get feedback on the next models.
Did you also have times where it was hard to come up with new characters and new parts of the story, especially when you needed to fill half a year until the next big thing could be released?
The problem was to design all these characters while each character needed to have an equal amount of time in the story and an equal amount of excitement to prevent some of them from not beeing sold because another character was cooler. It was really hard to squeeze so many characters into one story and to keep changing them all the time. Imagine Darth Vader getting a new costume every six months. It was harming the continuity of the story. Even I sometimes lost track of certain details of the story or about some characters.
Did Bionicle still feel like a LEGO subtheme after a while or was it more like a franchise of its own?
I think many people don’t know this, but at some point it was actually talked about taking Bionicle out of LEGO to make it a self-owned IP promoted by LEGO. It was such a great success and it was different from any other LEGO products at that time.
In the beginning, the boxes looked like the LEGO logo was ashamed to be part of this theme. Like: “How can you sell something cool with a LEGO logo on it?” Kids knew the red logo from Duplo and other toys and now you wanted them to go to the schoolyard and take their toys with them. This affected the positioning of the LEGO logo in the first years of Bionicle. It’s crazy from today’s perspective. Today the LEGO logo is more like a quality stamp. But at that time they were almost ashamed of it.
How do adult LEGO fans (who didn’t grow up with Bionicle) react, when you tell them that you are one of the inventors of this theme?
If I have to explain everything, it usually takes a lot of time. But if people are interested in business, innovation and creativity, it’s quite an interesting story to tell and many people actually want to hear how Bionicle came to be.
In May 2001, even before the launch of Bionicle in the US, LEGO was facing a lawsuit from the Maori people, who took action against the use of certain terms from their language within Bionicle.
In the beginning of our work on Bionicle, we found this book about the Maori language and shared it with the LEGO scriptwriters. We were all so happy that we found a language with this islanders feeling that we could use. But it was not the cleverest thing to directly use words from there. We should have changed some things and also had to do this afterwards for words that had a cultural meaning. But I think LEGO managed the process in a good way, because they also made an additional agreement with the Maori people afterwards. LEGO set out a code of conduct for the use of traditional knowledge in their toylines from that time on.
Are there aspects of Bionicle that you wanted people to learn from this theme for their real life?
Bionicle has always been about Yin and Yang. Sometimes the black part takes over the whole thing and you only have this small white dot of hope left. And I think that’s a philosophic thing about life that there’s always this counterweight. When you are in your darkest moments, something powerful will trigger a new direction. Unfortunately, it is also the other way around. When it is as good as it can get, there’s already a little black dot somewhere. When I started my job at Advance being only 20 years old, everything was perfect. But then I had this little dot in my field of vision which later turned out to be a tumor. But on the other hand, taking that fate and turning it into Bionical is quite good, I think!
Another aspect would be: At a certain point, the Toa had to leave the people who thought they would be their saviours. But they had to go away to be able to solve the bigger problems. And that’s actually a learning from these stories that the really big problems need radical solutions, what the pandemic has shown us, I think. And after the pandemic, the next common goal must be the climatic crisis and the way we use this planet.
Having worked on so many aspects of the Bionicle universe, is there a character that you would identify with?
Let me think… I need to find a really nerdy and philosophic one. (laughs) I feel a bit like one of the Turagas, an older robot who experienced a lot of stuff and can tell stories about it. The Toa are too much themselves to be me. I never wanted to be a big hero in the spotlight. I’m really into making people understand the importance of the small part they are playing in the big system. And that you don’t even need to wait for heroes to come and save you. That’s actually why I want to promote a new word, I think you should include this. I’ve been displaying heroes all my life for LEGO but I want to introduce a new kind of heroes: “Weroes”. It’s a combination of “we”, representing the community, and “heroes”. But it can also be interpreted as a weak hero, because everybody needs to face his oder her own weakness. And if I take a look at my role models: Jacques Cousteau was a thin guy with a spiky nose. Stephen Hawking became the weakest you could ever be, but he still told us about black holes and the universe. And today of course Greta Thunberg and other teenagers taking up the fight against climate change, these category is the new kind of hero for the next century. And last but not least, “wero” means “challenger” in the Maori language, so it fits really well and ties it back to Bionicle.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Christian Faber once again for giving me the chance to talk to him! It was a highly interesting conversation that could have gone on for many hours and that taught me many new aspects about the history of LEGO and certain theme series.
Now it’s time to share your thoughts with us! Did you already know certain details about the backgrounds of LEGO toylines like Bionicle, Aquazone or Star Wars? Are you interested in these aspects and would like to read more of it? Feel free to leave a comment.